"Brilliant people – people who are good at their jobs – are not necessarily management material."
Being technically brilliant does not automatically translate into being a brilliant manager of people. Traditional career paths have held up management positions as the ultimate destination. Management has been seen as the holy grail of promotional prospects. But is this right? Does this serve today’s organisations? Is there a better way?
Facebook seems to think so. They are now offering their staff a dual career track which allows employees to reach senior positions and be recognised as experts in their field without ever having to enter into people management. These technical experts are often stereotyped as siloed, linear thinkers, who lack the ‘people’ skills needed to successfully manage people. So are Facebook onto something? Most technical experts are extremely passionate about their work and so by taking the technical path they are able to dedicate themselves to what they are truly passionate about, which surely should be rewarding enough – do they really need to be taken off this track? Should these experts be left to their field of expertise and should business experts be bought in to manage them, or should businesses realise that just as technical skills can be learned, so can business skills?
How can you carve out a career for your technical experts?
In the majority of UK organisations all roads lead to management, because if you aren’t working your way up to a management position then how can you prove your worth?
Traditional succession planning strategies have identified rising stars as management material. A management role is bestowed as recognition of their contribution, a sort of achievement prize. However, this misses the point that a person who is good at his/her job will not necessarily be good at managing people. It’s an assumption made by the majority of leaders and directors but it’s one that could be hindering not helping the company’s overall prospects for success. The skills needed to be a great manager – communication, emotional intelligence, delegation, empowerment and collaboration – are not skills that these Rising Stars automatically possess. ‘Technical expert’ does not always translate into ‘marvellous manager’. And is a management role even the right way to recognise a job well done?
When these technical experts and rising stars are assessed, interviewed and considered for management roles their evaluation is missing a trick. Their success to date is the main factor for their suitability.
But this overlooks the fact that not only might management skills be in short supply by them in their current role but also that they might not actually want to be managers. Management is a skill that can indeed be learnt but it’s also true that some people are inherently better at it than others, and this is nothing to do with their ability to do the job. Everyone has different working strengths and limitations. Some people are driven, self-starters who aren’t afraid of setbacks and are results oriented, with a fast and decisive style. Others value close personal relationships at work whilst others prioritise structure and task-focussed processes. Everyone is motivated by different things so adopting a one-style-fits-all approach isn’t going to deliver the best results.
Management isn’t for everyone and once these rising stars are promoted to managers is the correct training being given to help them blossom into great leaders? People with a significant skills gap will need plenty of assistance to help them manage a team effectively and successfully. If you promote someone to a role that they are not suitably or adequately trained for (deleted) over time they become ineffective, which can be extremely damaging, not only to themselves or their teams but to the company as a whole.
So, should companies just focus their time and resources on people who are more intuitive, natural managers?
Facebook seems to think so. They have acknowledged that if you work for a great manager you are motivated, engaged and positive, but if not then you see the organisation that you work for from a completely different view point.
If ‘an employee works for a bad manager they see the company through that lens’ says Jeff Turner, Head of Learning and Development at Facebook. Allowing their employees to reach a senior position without managing people means that those who aren’t hardwired with the right skills are allowed to still be recognised for the work they are doing. Facebook is playing to the strengths of their technical experts and therefore getting the most out of them.
This isn’t just an approach taken by new Silicon Valley companies either. A top financial services institute in the city, with a 176 years heritage, viewed their technical experts in the same way. They realised that in order to move their business forward and increase pace and energy within the organisation they had to make changes, and one of those changes was to ensure that everyone within the organisation was on the right career track. It was necessary to ensure that the technical experts had the same level of influence within the business as those that are on a management path. This ensures that the company are playing to people’s strengths and allowing them to progress along the correct career path, which ultimately means that they get the best out of everyone within the business.
So is Facebook doing the right thing, or should they realise that just as technical skills can be learned so can business skills?
Businesses today need people who possess both a good technical brain as well as the traits of a good leader and manager. Can organisations afford to hire both the technical experts AND the business experts? Possibly not.
This is not to say that every technical expert falls into the ‘specialist technical expert’ category and must be left well alone, there are those within your organisation that have the underlying capabilities and the right attitude. It is therefore crucial to invest time into identifying the right candidates, who are able to bridge that gap between technical expert and people management, and invest money, training and resources to ensure that they can understand the contribution they can make to the organisation. Their technical skills are still valuable, but by using the management skills that they have learnt through development and training they are able to bring out the talents of others, and make an even greater contribution to their organisation.